Facing off at Kirkuk: caught between Iraq's army and the Kurdish Peshmerga

Facing off at Kirkuk: caught between Iraq's army and the Kurdish Peshmerga
Kirkuk is on tender-hooks, as a tense stand-off between Iraq's army and Kurdish Peshmerga threatens to bring war to the oil-rich city. Words by Yomi Kleinmann, pictures by Adam McCaw.
4 min read
14 Oct, 2017
Peshmerga soliders overlooking the Maktab Khalid Bridge at Iraqi forces, 50 metres away [Yomi Kleinmann/AMYKmedia]

Iraq's President Haider al-Abadi has given the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) an ultimatum, saying if they didn't adhere to a list of six demands he'd be forced to take military action.

Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil have been growing ever since Kurdistan voted "yes" on their independence referendum in late September, with the feud centred on the disputed, flashpoint city of Kirkuk.

Baghdad is demanding Kurdish forces give up Kirkuk International Airport, Kaiwan/K1 military base, all oil fields in the region, replace the governor of Kirkuk, remove all of their forces from possessions Iraq held prior to the appearance of the Islamic State group, and hand over all prisoners captured during the campaign.

A Peshmerga outpost - 20 kilometers south-west of the disputed city of Kirkuk - sees 200 Peshmerga soldiers fortified on their side of the Maktab Khalid Bridge.

Fifty metres south - on the opposite end of the river - sits the battle-hardened Iraqi Federal Police. The two sides are building up their defensive positions in anticipation for the 2am deadline given to the Kurdish forces by the Iraqi government.

General Sherzad overlooks his containment walls to the other side.

"The Hashd [al-Shaabi, pro-government militias] have their fingers on their triggers," he says squinting into the sun.

"We have no plan to attack, but have orders to defend our land. We have already fought and died for this land. If we wanted to attack, why would we have pulled back to this position?"

[Click to enlarge]

The soldiers say they will not leave without a fight. The outpost sits at the site where in 2015, Peshmerga forces fought the Islamic State group.

On 31 January, 2015 Peshmerga lost 220 soldiers in a battle for the same bridge they are holding today. In the three years since IS took control of the region, Peshmerga forces have lost 1,400 men in the battle to take back the city of Kirkuk, Lieutenant Awras Sh. Ahmad said.

Bulldozers from both camps push concrete T-walls back and forth. When Peshmerga forces advanced their pillars onto the bridge, Iraqi machines push them back. Its come to a stalemate with neither side looking to give in.

The soldiers on the Iraqi side of the bridge wear the traditional blue and grey digital cammo of the Iraqi Federal Police (IFP), but General Sherzad says they aren't who they appear to be.

"When we went to speak with them this morning, they only wanted to speak in English or Persian, they didn't know Arabic."

The general says the forces are dressed as police but are in fact a mix of Hashd al-Shaabi and other Popular Mobilisation Forces' groups, which act as an Iranian proxy in the region. "That's why they want to speak Persian, they are of Iran."

Hashd al-Shaabi flags can be seen flying over some of the blue IFP Humvees.

Sardar Soleimani - brother to Iran's illusive Quds Force commander Major General Qasem Soleimani - is said to be in charge of the unit on the opposing side of the bridge.

The general is a well-known, senior Iranian military officer who has served in the Army of the Guardians of Islamic Revolution (IRGC) - better known as the Revolutionary Guards - since 1998. Most recently, US President Donald Trump designated the group a "terrorist faction" in his speech on Friday addressing his concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear deal.

When asked what he thinks will come of the Iraqi demands General Sherzad said: "I do not respond to the requests of the Iraqi government. That is for the politicians to figure out, we are military - we will follow our orders and defend ourselves if necessary."

Captain Omar Sahallah is more despondent.

"We are almost certain there will be a fight here," he said.

Adam McCaw and Joachim "Yomi" Kleinmann are a photography and print journalism team covering areas of conflict.

Adam spent several years in the US Army Special Forces and has a working knowledge of deep infrastructure in the Middle East. Yomi has a background as an EMT, giving the team unparalleled experience in hostile environments.